September 17, 2017
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
“The Firstborn and Our Transgressions”
The prophet Micah ministered during the decline of Judah! He saw things go, as they say, “from bad to worse” — not unlike Rome when it threw off its restraints as a republic and became a full-fledged “empire,” distinguishing itself by perpetual war as well as “bread and circuses” (that is, welfare and entertainment) in order to distract its citizens from noticing the decline of the once-great republic and world power.
For that matter, Micah’s day was not too unlike our own here in America – a day of moral corruption and increasing rebellion against God’s basic commands of moral decency and order given to protect and preserve innocent life.
To give you an example of what Micah faced in his day, King Ahaz’ religious defection was so drastic the Scriptures testify he “did not that which was right in the sight of the LORD.” “What did he do?” we ask! He made images of the pagan god, Baal. He also observed infant sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom. And then while away meeting with Tiglath Pileser – king of Assyria, the world power of his day – he saw and admired a certain pagan altar there. He sent a plan of it home to be built. When he later returned to Judah, he established the new pagan altar as the official place of sacrifice at the temple — blithely replacing what God had carefully prescribed in the Mosaic Law. An attempt at syncretism, if you will!
In the lesson before us this morning, God commissions His prophet, Micah to act on His behalf in pleading His case against His own people — as though in a court of law! Micah obeys.
He appeals to the enduring mountains as those who heard the covenant mandated by Moses, of old. He appeals to the low-lying hills concerning the accuracy and truthfulness of his prosecution on the part of God!
“What have I done to you to bring about such rebellion? If anything,” He adds, “you should appreciate the fact that I delivered you from your oppressors in Egypt! And when you were entering the Promised Land at Gilgal, it was I who saved you from the plot of Balak, king of Moab who had commissioned the pagan soothsayer, Balaam son of Beor, to curse you and to destroy you!”
“What am I looking for from you?” He asks. “Year-old calves for sacrifice? Thousands of rams to be burned on the altar at the Temple? Do I seek ten thousand rivers of oil as an acceptable oblation? Have I called for the sacrifice of little children?
No! I am looking for the establishment of justice… the application of mercy… and for those who name My Name — to walk in humility.”
The case was so strong against His people, and their reluctance to repent so indisputable, He eventually pronounced the verdict of “guilty” and sent them away into exile for 70-years!
What lessons are available for us from this text this beautiful Lord’s Day morning as we move through the Trinity Season?
Well, first, there is certainly the recurring theme of the prophets that we must always take care to avoid “empty ritual.” Indeed, empty actions of any sort are absurd, but especially so is empty ritual! Going through motions without any meaning whatsoever! We are all susceptible to this.
I read recently an explanation of why the distance between railroad rails in America is 4’ 8-1/2” (a rather odd number)! It was so because that was the way they were spaced in England!
So why did the English space them that way? Because that was the spacing used for the rails of England’s horse-drawn trams (streetcars). Why were the horse-drawn tram rails spaced at that distance? Yes… because they used the same jigs and tooling for the spacing of wooden horse-drawn wagon wheels.
And why did the wooden horse-drawn wagon wheels require this dimension? If they did not follow the dimension, the wooden wheels would have broken on the edges of the permanent ruts in England’s long-distance roads (just like the permanent ruts found on the Oregon Trail).
Yes, there was a reason! Those ruts were made by the spacing of the wheel/axle design established by Imperial Rome for the mass production of their war chariots.
So, you see, the spacing of American railroad rails, in the final analysis, was determined by Imperial Rome!
The sacrifices established by God in the Book of Leviticus were vitally important for His people – when offered in thoughtful faith – not endlessly memorized mechanical movements! Through the sacrifices, His people were given the opportunity to acknowledge their personal sins and trust God’s provision of atonement (“covering”) based on the shed blood of innocent substitutes. But all actions were meaningless, of course, when detached from worship and reverence and understanding.
The same is true today! It is entirely possible to miss the whole point of worship when our minds… our hearts… our emotions are elsewhere! We then become like His people, of old, who were exiled for their carelessness in worship. Why do you trample My courts? He asked His people through Isaiah! Let us take great care that we know what we are doing when we enter His House of worship!
Second, there is the beautiful and meaningful sequence given at the height of the crescendo in this morning’s lesson! Justice… mercy… humility. It starts with the righteousness and justice of the Almighty! Once we realize our moral shortcomings – and especially our transgressions against such a good and loving God – it leads to our prayer for mercy and forgiveness (from the heart). And once we receive the mercy and forgiveness of God, we can never – indeed, must never — be the same again! This leads us to humility… lots of humility – especially the more we understand our moral exposure to the great dangers always all around us! Justice… mercy… humility! It has been said that we can stand before anyone – if we have first knelt before the justice of the Almighty in humility!
Third, there is a great observation regarding children. They are not to be sacrificed through death, as have done the pagans through history — and as pagans still continue to do today (including those who sacrifice them through abortion on the altar of convenience here in America)! They are to be offered to the Ancient of Days in life as the heritage He has entrusted to our care. Train up a child in the way he should go, we are carefully enjoined, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
But fourth, there is a fascinating – and most intriguing – light cast on us by God through these verses! Jesus bore witness in His day that the Scriptures testified of Him (St. John 5:39). And so they do! And so does the Micah passage before us this morning
A firstborn child cannot atone for our sins and transgressions. God forbid such folly! But the firstborn Child of God can! For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (St. John 3:16).
This is an amazing discovery! That God showers His love and blessings on those who do not merit them! And His own Son, who did nothing wrong becomes the sacrifice for sin – the only acceptable sacrifice for the sins of mankind!
For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (II Corinthians 5:21).
St Paul clearly reminds us that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. For God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
This is, of course, why the Holy Communion service – which sets forth the slain Body and spilled Blood of Christ so visibly – has always been so central to the worship of Christ’s Church! This sacrament (literally “sacred thing”) was offered every Sunday in the Early Church. It was offered every Sunday by the Reformers! It has always been offered each week since then to remind us – in our mindless “zombie-like” days – of what our salvation is all about! Jesus Christ died for us… and we in turn are to die for Him – a daily sacrifice not to earn acceptance, but to demonstrate redeemed hearts of love and appreciation!
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? God forbid! He has done that for us already through the self-sacrifice of His only first-begotten Son, our Lord.
World without end. Amen.